As Long As You’re In No Rush, Octavia Will Please

“Have we ordered yet?”  I asked my dining companion, unexpectedly changing the topic.  We had been engaged in conversation for sometime and my thoughts, adrift in our discussions, suddenly snapped back to our tangible surroundings.  A glance down at the menus, still lying on the table, immediately answered the question perplexing my once preoccupied mind.  We had long waits on the first visit to Octavia and our second engagement was proving to be equally as enduring.  So what brought me back for round two?  Was it those fresh raw oysters?  Or maybe the tender and crispy red snapper?  Our first dining experience gleamed with creative potential and I felt the menu needed a more thorough shakedown.

Chef Melissa Perello created some buzz earlier this spring when she opened Octavia, a new corner restaurant located in Lower Pac Heights.  No stranger to the San Francisco restaurant scene, Perello reached top of her game with her Castro based Frances, earning a Michelin star with the six year old restaurant (which she subsequently lost in 2014).  Her newest creation, Octavia, is borrowing much of Frances’ winning formula, offering refined yet unpretentious dishes in an approachable and relaxed setting.  In early June, roughly two months after opening, we decided to drop by for a late Tuesday night dinner.
The twilight sky lingered late into the evening and nearby streets were quiet as we made our way to Octavia’s front door where people movement, activity, and energy bled out from the restaurant’s large glass windows and enlivened the sidewalks around us.  Once inside we gazed around to what seemed to be a woodworkers shop converted into a dining room.  The setting was rustic and warm, helped by an abundance of distressed wood gracing tabletops, supportive columns, ceiling beams, and floors.  The comfortable country setting extended locally to our table, where earthenware dishes and patina coated silverware laid above a sanded and deeply eroded wood tabletop.
Once we sat down, our server cordially handed us menus and suddenly scurried along to attend other tables.  The leather bound cocktail menu held a dedicated section for Vermouths, listing a multitude of varietals sourced from diverse set of regions.  We sampled two of these fortified wines, labeled Alessio and Primitivo, and found them to be refreshing, mild, and complex.

The main menu, printed on weighty paper cotton, separated food into three categories:  snacks, appetizers, and main entrees.  Among the meals, which included soups, shellfish, pastas, and meats, there were also bolder dish offerings such as beef tongue and squid ink noodles with botargo.  Though we eyed the beef tongue, we ultimately chose two oysters (3$ a piece), risotto ($20), and the red snapper ($28).

The oysters promptly arrived as two half shells lying on a bed of crushed ice.  We abruptly slurped up the bivalve’s fresh briny innards, which were soaking in vinegary mixture of pickled ramps.  Our enthusiasm waned somewhat as our wait time for the remaining meals stretched frustratingly long.  But they came … eventually.  Creamy intense risotto, crisp succulent snapper, and a flavorful butter bean soup made us happy again, and echoed the kitchen’s attention to detail and culinary skill.  We finished off the evening with a chocolate Soufflé dessert that, when broken, oozed a warm liquidity center that helped melt an accompaniment of salted caramel ice cream.

Despite being generally pleased with the overall dining experience, there was a feeling that much of the diverse menu remained unexplored.  In addition, the long waits, which tarnished the experience, may have merely been caused by an “off” night.  Before casting judgment, a revisit was in order.

Two weeks later, we headed back to a more crowded Octavia where we ordered duck breast ($32), halibut ($11), bread with cooked mushrooms ($8), deviled eggs ($5 each), and two desserts ($9 each).  We began the meal with the mushrooms appetizer and small plate of raw halibut chunks.  Both dishes were fresh and skillfully prepared.  The duck meat, though a hair under-cooked, was tender, mildly flavored, and enhanced by a crisp favorably fatty outer skin.  Although the deviled eggs were attractively bespeckled in crimson colored seasonings, they were merely soft-boiled eggs and, for five dollars a piece, rather expensive.  The savory fig pudding and rich sweet cream puffs proved the pastry program, helmed by Sarah Bonor, to be honed, diversified, and consistent with our first visit.
If only we didn’t have to endure nearly two and a half hours of dining, with a significant portion of time devoted to waiting for the next meals.  Our servers did their best helping to mentally ease delays by gradually placing new dishes, bowls, and knives on our table before each meal, but two and a half hours is still two and a half hours.

Cleary, Perello is no stranger to high quality dining.  Meals were marked by uniqueness, fresh ingredients, refined preparations, and overall flavor balance.  Also, despite a full house of people on both nights, noise levels were moderate and the ambiance remained comfortable.  Unfortunately, each experience was also notable for long waits and a staff that seemed inattentive and somewhat overwhelmed.  Once Perello figures out how to better manage the dining floor, throttle customer reservations, and improve server coordination, she’ll most likely have another hit on her hands.

Food 4.0 Stars
Service 1.5 Stars
Ambiance 4.0 Stars
Value 3.5 Stars
Overall3.25 Stars

Comments

  1. Masoud Safi says

    We just returned from a hearty 4th of July supersized Mexican lunch, but reading this made me hungry all over again. Thanks Rob for sharing your experience at Octavia.

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